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Published by: aravindpunna on Apr 11, 2013
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04/11/2013

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Friarswood Post OfficeChapter I--The Strange Lad
'Goodness! If ever I did see such a pig!' said Ellen King, as she mounted the stairs. 'Iwouldn't touch him with a pair of tongs!''Who?' said a voice from the bedroom.'Why, that tramper who has just been in to buy a loaf! He is a perfect pig, I declare! I onlywonder you did not find of him up here! The police ought to hinder such folk from cominginto decent people's shops! There, you may see him now!''Is that he upon the bridge--that chap about the size of our Harold?''Yes. Did you ever see such a figure? His clothes aren't good enough for a scarecrow--andthe dirt, you can't see that from here, but you might sow radishes in it!''Oh, he's swinging on the rail, just as I used to do. Put me down, Nelly; I don't want to seeany more.' And the eyes filled with tears; there was a working about the thin cheeks andthe white lips, and a long sigh came out at last, 'Oh, if I was but like him!''Like him! I'd wish something else before I wished that,' said Ellen. 'Don't think about it,Alfred dear; here are Miss Jane's pictures.''I don't want the pictures,' said Alfred wearily, as he laid his head down on his white pillow,and shut his eyes because they were hot with tears.Ellen looked at him very sadly, and the feeling in her own mind was, that he was right, andnothing could make up for the health and strength that she knew her mother feared wouldnever return to him.There he lay, the fair hair hanging round the white brow with the furrows of pain in it, thepurple-veined lids closed over the great bright blue eyes, the long fingers hanging limp anddelicate as a lady's, the limbs stretched helplessly on the couch, whither it cost him so muchpain to be daily moved. Who would have thought, that not six months ago that poor cripplewas the merriest and most active boy in the parish?The room was not a sad-looking one. There were spotless white dimity curtains round thelattice window; and the little bed, and the walnut of the great chest, and of the doors of thepress-bed on which Alfred lay, shone with dark and pale grainings. There was a carpet onthe floor, and the chairs had chintz cushions; the walls were as white as snow, and therewere pretty china ornaments on the mantel-piece, many little pictures hanging upon thewalls, and quite a shelf of books upon the white cloth, laid so carefully on the top of thedrawers. A little table beside Alfred held a glass with a few flowers, a cup with some toastand water, a volume of the 'Swiss Family Robinson;' and a large book of prints of animalswas on a chair where he could reach it.
 
A larger table was covered with needle-work, shreds of lining, scissors, tapes, and Ellen'sred work-box; and she herself sat beside it, a very nice-looking girl of about seventeen, talland slim, her lilac dress and white collar fitting beautifully, her black apron sitting nicely toher trim waist, and her light hair shining, like the newly-wound silk of the silk-worm, roundher pleasant face; where the large, clear, well-opened blue eyes, and the contrast of whiteand red on the cheek, were a good deal like poor Alfred's, and gave an air of delicacy.Their father had been, as their mother said, 'the handsomest coachman who ever drove toSt. James's;' but he had driven thither once too often; he had caught his death of cold onebitter day when Lady Jane Selby was obliged to go to a drawing-room, and had gone off in adeep decline fourteen years ago, when the youngest of his five children was not six weeksold.The Selby family were very kind to Mrs. King, who, besides her husband's claims on them,had been once in service there; and moreover, had nursed Miss Jane, the little heiress,Ellen's foster- sister. By their help she had been able to use her husband's savings in settingup a small shop, where she sold tea, tobacco and snuff, tape, cottons, and such littlematters, besides capital bread of her own baking, and various sweet-meats, the best to thetaste of her own cooking, the prettiest to the eye brought from Elbury. Oranges too, andapples, shewed their yellow or rosy cheeks at her window in their season; and there wassometimes a side of bacon, displaying under the brown coat the delicate pink stripesbordering the white fat. Of late years one pane of her window had been fitted up with awooden box, with a slit in it on the outside, and a whole region round it taken up withprinted sheets of paper about 'Mails to Gothenburg,-- Weekly Post to Vancouver's Island'--and all sorts of places to which the Friarswood people never thought of writing.Altogether, she throve very well; and she was a good woman, whom every one respectedfor the pains she took to bring up her children well. The eldest, Charles, had died of consumption soon after his father, and there had been much fear for his sister Matilda; butLady Jane had contrived to have her taken as maid to a lady who usually spent the winterabroad, and the warm climate had strengthened her health. She was not often atFriarswood; but when she came she looked and spoke like a lady--all the more so as shegave herself no airs, but was quite simple and humble, for she was a very good right-minded young woman, and exceedingly fond of her home and her good mother.Ellen would have liked to copy Matilda in everything; and as a first step, she went for a yearto a dress-maker; but just as this was over, Alfred's illness had begun; and as he wantedconstant care and attendance, it was thought better that she should take in work at home.Indeed Alfred was such a darling of hers, that she could not have endured to go away andleave him so ill.Alfred had been a most lively, joyous boy, with higher spirits than he quite knew what to dowith, all fun and good-humour, and yet very troublesome and provoking. He and his brotherHarold were the monkeys of the school, and really seemed sometimes as if they
could not 
sitstill, nor hinder themselves from making faces, and playing tricks; but that was the worst of them--they never told untruths, never did anything mean or unfair, and could always bemade sorry when they had been in fault. Their old school-mistress liked them in spite of allthe plague they gave her; and they liked her too, though she had tried upon them everypunishment she could devise.Little Miss Jane, the orphan whom the Colonel and Mrs. Selby had left to be brought up byher grandmother, had a great fancy that Alfred should be a page; and as she generally had
 
her own way, he went up to the Grange when he was about thirteen years old, and put on asuit thickly sown with buttons. But ere the gloss of his new jacket had begun to wear off, hehad broken four wine-glasses, three cups, and a decanter, all from not knowing where hewas going; he had put sugar instead of salt into the salt-cellars at the housekeeper's dining-table, that he might see what she would say; and he had been caught dressing up MissJane's Skye terrier in one of the butler's clean cravats; so, though Puck, the aforesaidterrier, liked him better than any other person, Miss Jane not excepted, a regular complaintwent up of him to my Lady, and he was sent home. He was abashed, and sorry to havevexed mother and disappointed Miss Jane; but somehow he could not be unhappy when hehad Harold to play with him again, and he could halloo as loud as they pleased, and stampabout in the garden, instead of being always in mind to walk softly.There was the pony too! A new arrangement had just been made, that the Friarswoodletters should be fetched from Elbury every morning, and then left at the various houses of the large straggling district that depended on that post-office. All letters from thence mustbe in the post before five o'clock, at which time they were to be sent in to Elbury. The post-master at Elbury asked if Mrs. King's sons could undertake this; and accordingly she made agreat effort, and bought a small shaggy forest pony, whom the boys called 'Peggy,' andloved not much less than their sisters.It was all very well in the summer to take those two rides in the cool of the morning andevening; but when winter came on, and Alfred had to start for Elbury in the tardy dawn of afrosty morning, or still worse, in the gloom of a wet one, he did not like it at all. He used toride in looking blue and purple with the chill; and though he went as close to the fire aspossible, and steamed like the tea- kettle while he ate his breakfast and his mother sortedthe letters, he had not time to warm himself thoroughly before he had to ride off to leavethem--two miles further altogether; for besides the bag for the Grange, and all the lettersfor the Rectory, and for the farmers, there was a young gentlemen's school at a great oldlonely house, called Ragglesford, at the end of a very long dreary lane; and many a dayAlfred would have given something if those boys' relations would only have been so goodas, with one consent, to leave them without letters.It would not have mattered if Alfred had been a stouter boy; but his mother had alwaysthought he had his poor father's constitution, and therefore wished him to be more in thehouse; but his idleness had prevented his keeping any such place. It might have been thecold and wet, or, as Alfred thought, it might have been the strain he gave himself one daywhen he was sliding on the ice and had a fall; but one morning he came in from Elbury verypale, and hobbling, as he said his hip hurt him so much, that Harold must take the lettersround for him.Harold took them that morning, and for many another morning and evening besides; whilepoor Alfred came from sitting by the fire to being a prisoner up-stairs, only moved now andthen from his own bed to lie outside that of his mother, when he could bear it. The doctorcame, and did his best; but the disease had thrown itself into the hip joint, and it was buttoo plain that Alfred must be a great sufferer for a long time, and perhaps a cripple for life.But how long might this life be? His mother dared not think. Alfred himself, poor boy, wasalways trying with his whole might to believe himself getting better; and Ellen and Haroldalways fancied him so, when he was not very bad indeed; but for the last fortnight he hadbeen decidedly worse, and his heart and hopes were sinking, though he would not own it tohimself, and that and the pain made his spirits fail so, that he had been more inclined to befretful than any time since his illness had begun.

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